Those who apply for disability benefits and are initially rejected can appeal, and more times than not they end up winning their case. But a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report reveals that due to the years-long backlog of appeals, thousands of applicants for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are dying or going bankrupt while waiting for their cases to be resolved.
When people apply for SSI and SSDI, the Social Security Administration (SSA) first makes an initial determination. If the application is denied, there is a five-step appeals process. The applicant can request a redetermination, which typically takes about four months. If denied at this stage, the applicant can appeal to an administrative law judge (ALJ), followed by a further appeal to the SSA Appeals Council, and finally an appeal to federal district court, although this last step is very rare.
The system tends to clog up at the third and fourth stages of the appeal process. Between fiscal year (FY) 2011 and FY2016, the wait time for a hearing before an ALJ more than doubled, from 296 days in to 687 days. Meanwhile, the wait for a hearing before the Appeals Council rose from 383 days in FY2012 to 441 in FY2016.
The consequences of these long delays can be severe. From FY2008 to FY2019, an estimated 109,725 people died waiting for an appeal before an ALJ or the Appeals Council, according to the GAO report. The long wait times have dire financial consequences as well. From FY2014 to FY2019 alone, more than 48,000 people filed for bankruptcy while waiting for decisions on their appeals.
Overall, the median appeal wait time hit a high of 839 days—more than two years—in FY2015, and, even after efforts at reform, still stood at 506 days in FY2019.
“It is absolutely unconscionable that thousands of Americans suffer and die every year waiting for a final decision to get the modest Social Security benefits they need to survive,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) said in an August 13 news release. “People with disabilities trying to access their earned benefits are forced to wait years before they even get a hearing. This report shows not only how critical Social Security can be to Americans with disabilities, but how dire the backlog is.”
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